Bobby Bare Jr.: Humming to Myself

Listen to enough Bobby Bare Jr., and you start craving the stuff whenever you’re in need of a little peace of mind. It’s not that he makes music that’s necessarily peaceful, just that he’s arrived at a cross section of pie-eyed quirk, country musicianship, rocker dynamics and loveably dirty, unburnished romance that’s particularly agreeable on any kind of day.
 
The Longest Meow, Bare’s fourth release for Bloodshot Records, has been out for nearly six months, and he’s already thinking about a follow-up.
 
"I’m trying to write on my days off. I can’t write on the road, I need to be home, alone," he confesses. "I can be in another city, but I have to have a place where I can hum to myself."
 
Bare is known as often for his pedigree–his father, of course–and famous associations as he is for his own music. Johnny and June Carter Cash were old family friends, for example: the families often spent Christmases together, and Bare sang with both Dad and the Man in Black himself at a young age. The late, legendary poet Shel Silverstein was also a good friend of the Bares.
 
"My Dad’s advice was ‘get out,’" Bare laughs, when asked obligatorily about such famous influences and their thoughts on the music business. "He did have all kinds of ideas, though. Shel would critique everything I did, and let me know where I should twist things up."
 
Bare is a bit of an aloof interview, not in the sense of "I have no time for you, journalist," but more a vibe that might suggest "It’s just my music, man, and it makes me happy and it makes you happy and I’m glad to be of service–let’s not overanalyze."
 
It’s that sort of spirit he brought to "Meow’s" now-famous "11/11/11" session, a phrase that has separate meaning in the Bare universe outside of its World War I significance, and marks what Bare refers to as the most fun he’s ever had playing music in a single day.
 
On March 26, 2006, it all went down: Bare and a rogue’s gallery of hired guns–11 in total–went into a Nashville studio to cut 11 songs in 11 hours.
 
At 12:32 p.m. that day, they covened, starting with a core band that comprised Bare, bassist Mike Grimes, and two members of My Morning Jacket: guitarist Carl Broemel and drummer Patrick Hallahan.
 
MMJ leader Jim James would also be along for the ride, same with Carolina-based Mediterranean singer Carey Kotsionis, drummer/percussionist Doni Schroader (…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead), keyboardist/vocalist Corey Younts, vocalist/horn player Deanna Varagona (Lambchop), percussionist Ben Martin (Clem Snide), and producer Brad Jones. Also, no less than Bobby Bare Sr. himself was in the studio, according to Bare’s Web site–a sage presence, to say the least.
 
There’s a great photo of the lucky 11, captured for posterity in the album’s press notes and on the Web site, with giddy smiles, wild hair, and raised brewskis abounding. Even after a score of straight-through listens to The Longest Meow, you can still hear that all-at-once atmosphere, one step more organized than an informal get together among singing, picking, skin-beating friends.
 
"I knew I’d get cohesion, and also get something pretty unique," Bare said. "I think we got some cohesion, at least."
 
Why not spread the sessions out?
 
"I’ve made records where it took a long time, and I get tired of the songs," he confesses. "After a while, they sound worn out after lots of work, and not as fresh. Everything you hear is about 15 or so minutes after the band rehearsed [the song], which is great."
 
The oft-mentioned Pixies cover–Bare turns in a folksy, disarming version of "Where Is My Mind"–was just something that felt right.
 
"I was fishing around with all kinds of different stuff," he mentions. "I tried some Electric Light Orchestra songs, for example, and I was trying to see what felt the best in my mouth. I love that Pixies tune."
 
Bare’s connections to Frank Black don’t end there–Black’s Pixies alter ego, Black Francis, gets a shout out as early as Bare’s debut album (the track "Dig Down" from 2002’s "Young Criminals’ Starvation League"). Bare was also among the armada of Nashville and other musicians to serve Black on 2005’s Honeycomb and 2006’s Fastman Raiderman, the alt-rocker’s well-received roots/country forays.
 
"It was standing in a room, and, oh, there’s Steve Cropper and Levon Helm, and Ian McLagan of the Small Faces, and Tom Petersson [of Cheap Trick]–you know, all people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or will be," Bare recalls. "I sang backing vocals. It was pretty amazing."
 
Bare was a road warrior in 2006, and that trend continues this year. He currently has West Coast and Midwestern dates booked through March and, he reported, there will be some European dates ready for April.
 
"I don’t know–I’ve never seen one of my shows," he says, when asked about his development as a live performer. But I’ve never had the same band for more than four months, because I really like switching it up. It’s good to pick up different people and change things around."
 
Bare prefers the workshop format for live touring bands. No two installments of the Young Criminals’ Starvation League are alike, except for the leader.
 
"Before, I had the same band for six years," he explains. "I guess doing that is good to make the band more powerful, but the sheen sort of rubs off, too."
 
One area where the sheen hasn’t disappeared is Bare’s relationship with his label, Bloodshot Records. Upstart artists with situations similar to Bare’s current status often play the field, trying out a lineup of smaller labels while blowing kisses to the majors.
 
Not in this case.
 
"If you said anything bad about my band, they’d probably punch you out," Bare says of his Bloodshot reps. "They’re so passionate about music and the artists they work with. It’s different with a major label–they’re paid to like and be passionate about your band. Then, when you’re riding in a car with them, they’ll be just as passionate and use the same adjectives about Mariah Carey. It’s hard to know what they’re thinking."
 
Bobby Sr. remains a guiding force in Bare’s life, though getting the two back on stage together might take a little push.
 
"We did a tour where I took him along to cities where I do really well. It was kind of like show and tell: ‘This is my Dad, and here’s what he does,’" Bare says. "There are a lot of younger people who don’t know who he is.
 
Would we ever see the Bobby Bares on tour together again?
 
"Probably not," Bare laughs. "He’s lazy."
 
Chad Berndtson lives in Boston. His work appears in The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Relix, Jambands.com, the Providence Journal, and other publications. Contact him at [email protected]
 

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